Pros & Cons of Using the Martingale Horse Tack

There are two main types of martingale horse tack: Running and standing. Each of them has its own specifications and uses, but their main purpose is to control the horse’s head movements. This not only provides an elegant posture for the horse but also keeps the rider safe.

Martingales for horses are used in a multitude of equestrian sports. Some competitions and disciplines allow the use of certain designs, while others only authorize the use during training and schooling. Of course, there also are some disciplines and sports that do not allow them at all. These regulations also vary by location. Here are their main characteristics, advantages, and disadvantages:

The Running Martingale Horse Tack

The running martingale is held in place by neck straps or breastplates. It is made out of 2 straps that have a metal ring on their ends, which hosts the reins. These 2 straps are joined between the horse’s front legs and are attached to the girth. The reins should form a straight line from the bit ring to the rider’s hand when the martingale is inactive. With a running martingale, the neck straps are sometimes also attached to the saddle.

When active (i.e. when the horse raises its head over the desired limit) the martingale puts pressure on the bars inside the horse’s mouth. With a running martingale, the rider has full control over the reins and, therefore, the horse’s posture, in real time. They are generally used together with rein stops, which add to the safety of this piece of tack. They prevent the straps from sliding and getting tangled into the bit rings, buckles, or studs.

This type of martingale is the only one that can be used in eventing and horse racing. It is also used to train young or mature horses for saddle seat, western riding, and a multitude of other equine sporting disciplines. Although not designed for show jumping, many riders choose it instead of a standing martingale because it is instantly adjustable.

Pros & Cons of the Running Martingale Horse Tack

Running martingales are easier to adjust than their standing counterparts, but they are far from being 100% safe.

Pros of the Running Martingale:

  • Adjustable in real time, therefore safer than the standing martingale in some cases.
  • Less restrictive than their standing counterparts.

Cons of the Running Martingale:

  • Although adjustable by the rider while on the saddle, the running martingales need to also be adjusted beforehand. This will leave the rider a certain length they can work with, but sometimes not enough to ensure safety and proper movement.
  • No matter how it is adjusted, the running martingale will always exert pressure on the reins and the horse’s mouth.

The Standing Martingale Horse Tack

Also known as a head check, the standing martingale is recommended to horses which tend to invert or toss their head backwards. It connects the noseband to the horse’s girth or breastplate to control his or her head movements. However, it should only be attached to a cavesson or a flash noseband, never to a drop noseband, to avoid injuring the nose’s cartilages.

The traditional standing martingale is used for show hunting competitions, hunt seat equitation, polo, polocrosse, and horseball games. It is often used to equip military and police horses. If used for English riding competitions, the martingale strap should be tight enough not to touch the throat latch. At the same time, it should be loose enough to allow natural movements.

The tiedown is a type of standing martingale that is mainly used for western equine disciplines. It serves the same purpose but is tighter and more restrictive than traditional standing martingale for horses. An upwards movement of just a few inches is enough to put pressure on the horse’s nose. Western equine sports often require abruptly stopping or turning at high speeds, hence the need for a shorter martingale.

A tiedown’s noseband can be sometimes made of a cable covered in plastic, which is considered more abrasive and harsher than traditional head check martingales. The tiedown is mainly used for gymkhana games in the U.S. or other western speed and rodeo events.

Pros & Cons of the Standing Martingale Horse Tack

Although generally useful, standing martingales also pose a series of dangers for horses and riders alike.

Pros of the Standing Martingale:

  • The standing martingale horse tack is a self-correcting equipment.
  • It is considered passive since it has no effect after the horse corrected his or her movements.
  • If used correctly, it’s the safest and most humane method of teaching proper posture.
  • It ensures the rider’s safety by preventing the horse from accidentally hitting him with the head.
  • Some claim the head check and the tiedown offer more balance by giving horses something to brace against. However, this highly depends on each particular situation.

Cons of the Standing Martingale:

  • Fixed and more restrictive than the running martingale. If combined with a gag bit, it will often trap a horse’s head and cause confusion as to what he or she is supposed to do.
  • If improperly used it can cause pain, cartilage damage, and an overdevelopment of the lower neck and upper chest muscles. Other long-term effects are excessive tension in the back muscles and incorrect or unnatural movements, pressure on the horse’s spine, and lameness. All these affect the horse’s abilities and performance and can make him or her unfit for competitions or work.
  • Generally dangerous if not properly adjusted, especially since it’s impossible to quickly tighten or loosen it during an emergency. One that’s too loose might catch a horse’s leg, seriously endangering his and his rider’s well being and life. On the other hand, one that’s too tight might also pose safety hazards by preventing the horse from maintaining his balance.
  • Banned for multiple competitions and disciplines all over the world. Flat class competitions and every other discipline not mentioned above forbid the use of standing martingale horse tack.

Martingales can be extremely useful, but they can also be hazardous for the rider’s safety and the horse’s health. Apart from the physical effects, these types of tack can also cause behavior changes. This is why it’s recommended to use them as early as possible on foals, if possible. They should always be loose when used on new horses and gradually ease them into it, because they might panic and react unpredictably otherwise.

Image sources: 1, 2, 3, 4.

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